Tropical Storm Isaac over Gulf of Mexico, (8/27/2012 at 12:32 UTC) NOAA satellite image, partial graphic
NEW ORLEANS - As massive Tropical Storm Isaac spun towards the Gulf Coast with the potential of hitting land Tuesday, a wide area of the region, still mindful of the deadly damage from Hurricane Katrina, was evacuating.
Federal officials warned of a dangerous storm surge, saying rising water, not wind, was a major concern. The large, slow-moving storm will push water from the Gulf ashore and dump up to 18 inches of rain on already saturated land.
Residents, recalling the fallout from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which destroyed about 80% of New Orleans and killed about 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast, are stockpiling food, water and other staples. Lines at gas stations are growing and airlines began canceling inbound and outbound flights as the size of the storm expanded. Officials declared emergencies in four states.
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By Monday evening, Isaac had sustained winds of 70 mph and was about 230 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, moving northwest at 10 mph.
The storm is expected to reach hurricane status, with wind speeds of 75 mph, sometime Monday night. At landfall, which is expected sometime between 11 p.m. Tuesday and 11 a.m. Wednesday, the hurricane should have winds of around 90 mph, which means it would hit as a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, the hurricane center reported. Forecasters predict it would intensify to a Category 2 hurricane, with winds of about 100 mph, by early Wednesday.
The National Hurricane Center predicted Isaac would hit somewhere along a roughly 300-mile stretch from the bayous southwest of New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle. That it hasn't reached hurricane status yet surprised some weather experts.
"It is a bit unusual for a storm over the Gulf," AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said. Although Gulf waters are nearly 90 degrees, warm water is only one factor in a hurricane's development. Isaac pulled in a lot of dry air into its center as it was developing, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. Dry air can slow down the intensification of a hurricane.
Also, the storm wandered over Hispaniola and Cuba over the weekend, further inhibiting its development, Feltgen said, because staying over land tends to weaken storms. Issac has also been weakened by wind shear from a nearby storm over the Yucatan, Sosnowski said.
That should change overnight, when it makes landfall as a Category 1 Hurricane in southeastern Louisiana late Tuesday afternoon or early evening.
Area residents and officials were bracing for trouble.
"I gassed up - truck and generator," John Corll, 59, a carpenter, said as he left a New Orleans coffee shop Monday morning. He lived through Katrina in 2005 and was expecting a weaker storm this time, adding that he thinks the levee system is in better shape to handle a storm surge than when Katrina hit. "I think the state and local governments are much better prepared for the storm surge and emergencies," Corll said.
On the Alabama coast, Billy Cannon was preparing to evacuate with cars packed with family and four Chihuahuas from a home on a peninsula in Gulf Shores. But Cannon, who has lived on the coast for 30 years, said he thinks the order to evacuate Monday was premature.
"If it comes in, it's just going to be a big rainstorm. I think they overreacted, but I understand where they're coming from. It's safety," said Cannon, 72.
In Bayou La Batre, the self-proclaimed "Seafood Capital of Alabama," was under mandatory evacuation. Mayor Stan Wright is considering a dusk-to-dawn curfew, beginning Tuesday. Bayou La Batre, which has a major shipbuilding industry, was perhaps the state's hardest hit region by Katrina, with shrimping and crabbing industries devastated.
On Grand Isle, a barrier island about 100 miles south of New Orleans, residents latched down homes and drove out boats under a mandatory evacuation order. Isaac's fickle path has made it difficult to advise residents when they should leave and where they should go, Councilman Jay LaFont said.
"This has been a really challenging one," he said.
The storm left 24 dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, but blew past the Florida Keys with little damage, promising little more than a drenching for Tampa, where Monday's planned start of the Republican National Convention was pushed back a day in case Isaac passed closer to the bayside city.
Nearly every major U.S. airline has instituted some sort of flexible rebooking policy for travelers headed to Florida and portions of the Gulf Coast. Several airlines - including Delta, United and US Airways- extended their rebooking waivers beyond Florida to Gulf Coast airports in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Airlines were expected to cancel at least 180 flights on Monday after more than 740 cancellations Sunday. The tally is likely to grow during the next 48 hours.
Amtrak canceled Tuesday and Wednesday train service in Louisiana. The route that runs from New York to New Orleans will end in Atlanta, while its Los Angeles-New Orleans route will stop in San Antonio. Amtrak was also suspending part of its rail line between Miami and Orlando.
If it hits during high tide, Isaac could push floodwaters as deep as 12 feet onto shore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and up to 6 feet in the Florida Panhandle, while dumping up to 18 inches of rain over the region, the National Weather Service warned.
Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said he hopes residents have learned from Katrina and will heed calls to evacuate to higher ground.
"We are concerned that people did not learn the lesson about water," Fugate said. "We need people to go now."
FEMA has been tweeting tips to those preparing for the storm, encouraging people to update emergency contact lists and check that their emergency kits have rain gear, battery-powered radios, flashlights and extra batteries. FEMA also said phone calls may be difficult after a storm and suggested updating social networks and texting family and friends to stay in touch.
Some of the heaviest impact could be in Alabama and Mississippi, he said. "I know Katrina is first and foremost on everyone's mind because the anniversary is approaching" on Wednesday, Fugate said. "This is not a New Orleans storm. This is a Gulf Coast storm."
In Jackson, Miss., Mayor Harvey Johnson urged residents to prepare for heavy rain and strong wind gusts Wednesday. City emergency crews, including law enforcement and public works, are on standby, he said.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and we are prepared to deploy the necessary city resources if and when they are needed," Johnson said. "We will also share information with citizens through our Code Red alert system as it becomes available."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal strongly encouraged residents Monday not to put off storm preparations such as stockpiling medication, food, water and other supplies. He said that 20 Louisiana parishes were under a hurricane warning and that 23 had declared a state of emergency.
He already called for a state of emergency, and 53,000 residents of St. Charles Parish near New Orleans were told to leave ahead of the storm.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also declared states of emergency.
"Hope for the best as you prepare for the worst," Jindal said during a Baton Rouge press conference. Jindal expressed concern about the storm hovering over areas with high rain volume and winds, especially in areas known for flooding.
Jindal outlined statewide preparations including moving prisoners out of New Orleans; making about 3,900 beds available in Shreveport shelters; mobilizing 4,000 National Guard troops; and getting state troopers to monitor evacuation routes. He said state offices in Baton Rouge and southern Louisiana would close Tuesday and Wednesday. .
Heavy flooding could be devastating to low-lying coastal communities like Vermilion and Iberia parishes in Louisiana, which were heavily damaged by storm surge during Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
"We'll just have to worry about how much rain we'll get and flooding," said Vermilion Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness Director Rebecca Broussard.
Most residents have rebuilt, but not all.
"A lot of people are prepared, but they're some that are not elevated," Broussard said. "They're still waiting for insurance or FEMA money."
Officials with Plaquemines Parish, 10 miles south of New Orleans, were not taking any chances. They ordered a mandatory evacuation for most of the southern part of the parish. Work crews recently raised levees in that area, but they will be no match for a strong surge from Isaac, parish President Billy Nungesser said.
"We don't want to see those people trapped in southern Plaquemines," he said Monday.
Residents across New Orleans tracked weather reports and weighed decisions to stay or go.
Ray Newman, owner of the Chart Room, a French Quarter bar, said it wasn't much of a debate for him: He's staying. He expected brisk business Monday, as locals who are staying congregated at the bar to discuss the storm.
"We stayed open for Katrina, we're definitely staying open for this one," he said.
But many New Orleans residents who lost homes and businesses during Katrina began packing up Sunday and heading out.
"Today, seven years later, it's still fresh on people's minds," said Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association. Television pictures of Lower Ninth Ward residents stranded on rooftops became the lasting image of Katrina.
What to do in the event of a major storm is talked about at monthly homeowners meetings, year-round, Jackson said. Despite having levees 16 feet higher than they were during Katrina, most of the neighborhood's 4,000 residents plan on leaving, she said.
"Today, when we get rain, we get thinking," Jackson said. "I think we're OK, but we're not that OK that we want to stay."
The miles of levees and pumps surrounding the city, which the Army Corps of Engineers spent billions of dollars rebuilding and fortifying after Katrina, make New Orleans a much safer place than it was in 2005, said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Residents are also better prepared for big storms, having gone through Katrina in 2005 and Gustav, which just missed the city in 2008.
The city will wait until a Category 3 hurricane is forecast before triggering mass evacuation plans and opening shelters, Berni said. Officials were advising residents who planned to stay to prepare for several days without power or water.
"We're much better prepared than we've ever been in our city's history," he said. "Our citizens are battle-tested and have shown resiliency. The important thing is for people not to become complacent."
Jindal said Sunday that he had authorized 4,000 Louisiana National Guard troops to stand by if needed to secure parts of southern Louisiana hit during the storm, and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was readying 200 boats for high-water rescues.
Michelle Ingram, 42, owner of Zeus' Place, a New Orleans pet boarding and rescue business, said she made the decision late Saturday to move her 32 rescue dogs and cats to a friend's ranch in Mississippi. That meant buying 40 pounds of cat food, 80 pounds of dog food and 100 pounds of kitty litter and packing up all the pets for the 2½-hour drive north.
Katrina took Ingram's home, and Gustav forced her to move all of her pets to Mississippi.
This time around, the move is going more smoothly, even though Ingram has less time in which to do it, she said. Still, leaving is tough. "There's always this thought that when I leave, I'll never see my house again," Ingram said.
The Gulf Coast hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region.
And while many people are hoping the storm could have a silver lining bringing record rain to dry areas, Isaac "is not going to be a drought-buster, but any rain would be welcome," said John Gagan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Springfield, Mo.
A brief period of heavy rain would ease drought conditions, he said, but "what you need to break the drought is consistent rainfall over a period of weeks and weeks and weeks."
Isaac has already prompted the closure of several Gulf Coast oil refineries, a move that could push prices at the pump 10 cents a gallon or higher over the next few days. The region's refineries produce about 22% of the nation's supply. Currently, gasoline averages $3.75 a gallon nationwide, the highest ever for this time of year.